History of Thriller Books

Pulp magazines (sometimes called “the pulps”) are inexpensive fiction magazines that were released from 1896 through the 1950s. The definition of pulp stems from the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed; in contrast, magazines printed on high quality paper were called “glossies” or “slicks”. The normal pulp magazine had 128 pages; it was 7 inches (18 cm) wide by 10 inches (25 cm) high, and 0.5 inches (1.3 cm) thick, with ragged, untrimmed edges.

The pulps gave rise the definition of pulp fiction in relationship with run-of-the-mill substandard quality literature.

In their first decades, pulps were most often priced 10 cents per magazine, while competing slicks cost Twenty five cents each. Pulps were the successors towards the penny dreadful, dime novels, and short fiction magazines of the Nineteenth century. Although many respected authors wrote for pulps, the magazines were best known for lurid and exploitative stories and fabulous cover art. Modern superhero comic books are occasionally considered descendants of “hero pulps”; pulp magazines often featured illustrated novel-length stories of heroic characters, like the Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Phantom Detective.

The first “pulp” was Frank Munsey’s revamped Argosy Magazine of 1896, with about 135,000 words (192 pages) per issue, on pulp paper with untrimmed edges, and no pictures, also around the cover. The steam-powered publishing press had been in widespread use for a while, enabling the growth in dime novels; prior to Munsey, however, nobody had combined inexpensive printing, cheap paper and cheap authors in a package that provided inexpensive amusement to young working-class people. In 6 years Argosy went from a few thousand copies monthly to in excess of 500,000.

Street & Smith, a dime novel and boys’ weekly publisher, was next in the marketplace. Witnessing Argosy’s success, they launched The Popular Magazine in 1903 that they billed as being the “biggest magazine in the world” by virtue of its being two pages (the interior sides of the back and front cover) longer than Argosy. Because of variations in page layout however, the magazine had considerably less text than Argosy. The Popular Magazine did introduce color covers to pulp publishing, and also the magazine started to take off once the publishers in 1905 obtained the rights to serialize Ayesha, by H. Rider Haggard, a sequel to his well-known novel She. Haggard’s Lost World genre affected a number of key pulp authors, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Talbot Mundy and Abraham Merritt. In 1907, the cover price rose to 15 cents and 30 pages were included with each issue; together with establishing a stable of authors for each magazine, this transformation proven successful and movement began to approach that of Argosy. Street and Smith’s next innovation was the development of specialized genre pulps, with each magazine concentrating on a specific genre, such as detective stories, romance, etc.

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